- One of Cole’s objectives as a teacher is to inspire girls who are interested in math and to show them they can excel in it.
- Cole enjoys sharing strategies and practices that have worked for her through professional development sessions.
By Mike Marsee
(TAYLOR MILL, KY) – Laura Cole might have made a pretty good accountant, but she might not have made the kind of impact she has had in her chosen vocation.
Cole turned to teaching instead of accounting, and she has influenced scores of students and more than a few fellow teachers in 12 years as a mathematics teacher at Scott High School (Kenton County).
Her work to improve student performance at her school and throughout the district was recognized recently by the Milken Family Foundation, which honored her as a Milken Educator Award winner in a surprise ceremony Feb. 26 at her school.
“It’s been incredible. It’s just been amazing,” Cole said. “I’ve just been really honored and thankful.”
Cole’s father was an accountant, and she discovered during her school years that she enjoyed math and had an aptitude for it. But she also was drawn to teaching at an early age thanks in part to the way she saw her mother, a speech therapist, work with young children.
“I thought I would be an accountant at one point,” she said. “But I was really drawn to wanting to work with people and impact people’s lives, and teaching spoke to me in that way.”
She said the idea of helping to inspire girls who are interested in math also spoke to her.
“I also saw a need for strong women in math and high school math spoke to me,” Cole said. “I took a lot of college math classes, and the number of women was always smaller than the number of men. I think young girls need to know they can excel in math.”
Evelyn Hernandez, a junior at Scott High, said Cole pushes all of her students toward excellence.
“She’s always there for us and she helps us excel,” Hernandez said. “She knows what our goals are and she knows how to help us achieve them.”
A graduate of Eastern High School (Jefferson County), she said her experiences as a student have shaped her as a teacher. She said most of her favorite teachers taught math.
“I think, for me, it was that they were passionate about their job and you could tell that, and the excitement they had for teaching and teaching math,” Cole said. “Another thing was they were interested in me as a person outside of just being their student. Those two things make an impact, and that’s why you remember them.”
Cole also has fond memories of her experiences in extracurricular activities.
“I had a wonderful high school experience,” she said. “I was involved in the dance team and the tennis team, and also in student council and the National Honor Society and some other after-school programs.”
So when Cole became a teacher, she got involved in some of the same activities.
“I wanted to pay that forward,” Cole said. “I had great mentors and teachers when I was involved in those activities, so I wanted to continue that. Another teacher and I started the dance team at Scott, and we went to state a couple of seasons. I was involved with student council and I still connect with some of those kids today.”
In recent years, Cole has transitioned from sponsoring individual activities to greater involvement at the school level. She spent about five years on Scott High’s school-based decision making council. She also serves as chairwoman of the school’s math department, where she teaches geometry, Algebra II and a dual-credit college algebra course.
Cole said she has grown in a number of ways during her teaching career, which began with a one-year stint in Tupelo, Miss., before she returned to her native Kentucky in 2008. When the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation introduced the Mathematics Design Collaborative, she jumped in with both feet. When the Common Core State Standards Initiative began to change the way math was being taught, she embraced it.
“I think that’s part of the reason why I received the Milken,” she said.
Cole devotes a great deal of time to sharing the things that have worked for her through professional development at the school, district, regional and state levels.
“What I enjoy most about professional development is collaborating with other teachers about something I love to do, which is teach math. I learn something new from them and I’m able to share that forward,” Cole said. “It’s really the collaboration part. We need more of that in education. We need the extra time outside of the classroom where we’re compensated to collaborate so each of us is not working on an island and we’re forming a professional community.”
However, one of the things Cole said she enjoys most is seeing that moment when the concept she is teaching clicks in a student’s mind.
“That’s why you come back every day. It’s just so rewarding, and I just smile so much and congratulate them on their accomplishment,” she said. “It’s like a proud mom moment, and it just builds more confidence to create more of those moments.”
Cole also serves as a mentor to her students, from helping them prepare for the ACT on Saturdays to making sure they’re taking the classes best suited for them.
“She will go above and beyond,” Scott High junior Bella Giordano said. “She definitely has for me, making sure I’m in the right classes that I need to be in, working with me and my parents to make sure that I’m where I should be in state testing and things like that, giving me materials that will help me excel.
“She knows our potential and she makes sure that we achieve that.”
Cole said she relies heavily on routine in her classroom. Her class periods typically begin with a warmup activity designed to identify any misconceptions students might have about what was covered the day before or to help bring students who were absent up to speed.
“It’s a continual cycle of learning and figuring out where they might not be understanding something,” she said.
Then she moves into a new lesson on the topic of the day, followed by a check for understanding and perhaps a homework assignment.
“Her classroom is always energetic and bright,” Giordano said. “She’ll just talk to us like she’s a friend.”
Cole is one of 40 Milken Educator Award winners honored during the 2019-2020 school year, and the only one in Kentucky. The Milken Family Foundation has recognized more than 2,800 educators – including 57 in Kentucky – since the Milken Educator Awards were first presented in 1987.
She received a $25,000 unrestricted cash prize and became part of a network of colleagues that serves as a resource for educators, school boards and other groups dedicated to excellence in education.
“From what I know about the program, it sounds like they want to encourage winners to make an impact on the education community as a whole, and I would hope to achieve that through attending conferences and talking to teachers across the state or across the nation,” Cole said. “I still want to teach my students – I’m not ready to give that up yet – but I can also share things that I’m doing and collaborate with people across the United States. I’m sure there’s so much I can learn from other teachers.”
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